By Hannah Tyler
The strangest thing about this crisis is that unless you work in a hospital, you don’t see much of it.
When the First World War ended, joy and relief were stymied by the outbreak of the Spanish flu. The pandemic killed 228,000 people in Britain, but is rarely brought up in history or covered in pop culture. The trauma of that loss was often mixed up in mourning for those lost in the war, and the general grief of the time was expressed in unexpected ways—like the popularity of spiritualism, the practice of contacting the dead through séances. In terms of scale, the Spanish flu is the closest in history to the pandemic we are experiencing now. It’s so weird when you can feel history happening to you. With over 100,000 deaths in the UK from COVID, what form is our grief going to take? How will history see this pandemic?
I sent an article to my family in Australia detailing the situation in London’s hospitals and I feel as far away from it as they are. In London—all around us—COVID wards are being overwhelmed. Nurses, healthcare professionals, cleaners, and doctors are putting their lives on the line to save the dying. Essential workers are making sure people can get to work, that our services still run. It’s not just them but people they live with, their families, putting their lives on the line for very little thanks and generally very little pay.
I haven’t lost anyone to COVID so far. I don’t assume to speak about that grief. But I can talk about the grief I do carry.
My grief is for an amorphous figure of 100,000 lives, it’s for the life I used to live, for the fact that this has been allowed to happen in this county when in other places—Vietnam, Rwanda, Australia, Taiwan—measures were taken to prevent it. I think it’s important to acknowledge that what is happening to us individually is sad at the same time as acknowledging that it’s worse for many others. To process our own pain so we can do the things other people may not be capable of right now.
Yesterday I got the first jab of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. I’ve started training through work to volunteer as a vaccine administrator, and the day before I was learning to draw up the needle and put it in a fake arm. That needle is long. It goes right past the layers of your skin and into the deltoid muscle at the top of your arm. I was expecting it to sting, but I couldn’t hold my surprise when I barely felt a thing. The needle may be long but it is also very thin and the whole thing only takes a few seconds.
Right now, synthetic messenger RNA in the vaccine is running around my body, telling my immune system to produce the ‘spike’ protein of COVID-19 (those things that make coronaviruses look like a crown and give them their name). This will make my immune system start producing antibodies to the virus. Having done its job, the mRNA will then naturally dissipate. If I get exposed again my body will remember how to fight it. Although, right now, we aren’t sure for how long it remembers.
The side effects have been few. My arm is sore when I lift it, which should go away in a day or so. I feel tired and my neck feels kind of achey. This too should pass quickly.
I keep thinking about how we contain and express our grief as humans: through rituals. Every injection is a ritual. Put together the needle and syringe, draw up the vaccine, check it has no air bubbles, put it in a person, inject it, pause, bring it out. Repeat. In for ten seconds, pause, out quickly. Every jab is another life that is now much less likely to become critically ill, and a quiet secular prayer from me for those who died.
Rituals have been shown to help people deal with negative emotions. Both big social rituals, like funerals and minutes of silence, but also personal rituals. Most rituals are about precise movements in a certain order, that often don’t have any practical effect, but it’s the doing that helps. Grief is about a loss of control, a reaction to chaos. Rituals give structure for messy emotions to fit into.
Every vaccination has a precise order: the right boxes on the forms to be checked, the right questions, the right answers. There is no grey, no interpretations or in-betweens. Today 482,110 vaccines were given in the UK alone. Slowly, diligently, we are moving through the population. 24.6% have received their first dose.
In giving vaccines I’m part of trying to contain a pandemic that is out of control. Every time I administer one I hope to reshape the chaos of my life, the messiness of that grief, into a simple order.